October 9, 2008
One of the most significant moments in Dan Jacobson’s book Heshel’s Kingdom occurs during a visit to the Vilnius Jewish State Museum. While touring the museum, Jacobson enters a room in which
…the photographs on the walls showed scenes of unspeakable horror. It was impossible therefore not to become aware that the element of involuntary or unacknowledged voyeurism might be involved in looking at them.
Momentarily, Jacobson wonders how “dedicated anti-Semites and other psychopathic types might respond to the bestialities displayed in the museum.” Then, even more horrified, he “suddenly realized that the worst of the photographs had been taken by the killers themselves…[or] their companions and accomplices.” Jacobson’s mixed reaction to these photographs is striking within the context of the book because his visit to Lithuania has mostly resulted in a disappointing absence of evidence of his grandfather and the rich Jewish culture that once existed there.
Looking about me in Lithuania, searching for him in the midst of a devastating absence and emptiness, I was surprised to find myself grasping for the first time the full reality to itself of the obliterated community he had belonged to. Seeing him in the context of his vanished people…
Coming upon these photographs of the ghettos and concentration camps in the museum, Jacobson is bit like a thirsty wanderer in the desert who finally stumbles on an oasis only to find that the well is poisoned.
Sadistic prurience was not a ‘temptation’ or a ‘danger’ for the photographers of the scenes on show here: it was precisely what had animated them. For some of the killers the taking of snapshots had served as a deferred means of gloating over their victim’s torments; it kept in prospect a renewal of the fun later, when such trophies could be hauled out for inspection by the photographers and their friends.
But if that was the case, should their handiwork be put on display? Should we give them the satisfaction of tormenting their victims anew – and for ever – each time a visitor came into this museum, or any other like it?
Jacobson does not explicitly answer this question (there are no photographs of any kind in Heshel’s Kindgom except on the just jacket). But while he is ponering such issues, a small group of tourists comes into the same room. One elderly woman stares at a photograph of starving Jews and armed Nazis in a local ghetto and she begins to speak to Jacobson.
She spoke firmly, hoarsely, doggedly almost, but without any special emphasis: it was clear that she simply felt compelled, because I was there, because I was a stranger and we had met in this place, to tell me something… ‘I was here in the war. I was in Kovno Ghetto. Afterward they sent me to Auschwitz’.’
Jacobson watches as the woman proceeds to try to photograph the ghetto photograph with her camera. Clearly, for at least one person who, significantly, experienced the Holocaust, the Nazi photographs served as some form of evidence. Whether this made Jacobson is more comfortable with the exhibition of photographs he never says.
Toward the end of Heshel’s Kingdom, Jacobson comes across evidence of a totally different kind. This is evidence left by Jewish prisoners being held in the infamous Fort IX in Kaunas, originally designed to protect the country from invaders, but used by the Nazis to terrorize and eliminate Lithuanian and European Jews. It is with this event that Sebald ends his book Austerlitz. In the bowels of the fort, where many thousands of Jews from all over Europe were held, tortured, and slaughtered, Jacobson comes across names and dates scratched into the walls between 1941 and 1944. “Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44″, one says. Another reads “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais.” We are nine hundred Frenchmen. As evidence, these stark scratchings seem minor in comparison to the visible horror of the photographs Jacobson has seen, but he suggests that these simple attempts to be remembered, to be human, have a chilling veracity and authenticity far more powerful than documents made by the killers of these same people.
I feel sure that Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others would address this topic, but neither I nor my local bookstore happen to have a copy. So I will leave that reading for another day.
Heshel’s Kingdom, to oversimplify, is a blend of memoir, history, and travel writing, centered on Jacobson’s desire to understand more about his maternal grandfather Heshel Melamed, a village rabbi in Lithuania who died right after the First World War. This search ultimately leads Jacobson to Lithuania and an attempt to comprehend the fact that nearly every Jew in Lithuania was killed during World War II. Heshel’s Kingdom plays an important role in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which I wrote about recently. Look here for information in English on the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (as it is now called); the museum’s own website is in Lithuanian.
September 26, 2008
the dead, they are always with us. W.G. Sebald
On the final three pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the narrator concludes his story of Jacques Austerlitz by summarizing a book that Austerlitz had given him earlier – Heshel’s Kingdom by Dan Jacobson. I recently finished rereading Heshel’s Kingdom after a lapse of several years and I was even more impressed the second time around.
“This is not an autobiography,” Jacobson writes. “Of the many threads that run through my earliest years, I intend to follow only one: that of the connection I had, or did not have, to the distant part of the world where my parents had come from.” South African born Jacobson attributes his own existence to the fact that his maternal grandfather Heshel Melamed died prematurely, forcing his mother’s family to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa in 1920, where she would eventually meet her future husband. Mildly but persistently curious about the grandfather he never knew, Jacobson would question family members or do some research to try to comprehend Heshel’s life as a village rabbi. But with each attempt he resigned himself to feeling that he could not bridge the gulf between his life and his grandfather’s. At one point he tries on his grandfather’s eyeglasses only to find “it was a kind of torture to look at the world through his spectacles.”
The first half of Heshel’s Kingdom is about the failure of the imagination. For most of his life Jacobson could only imagine the Eastern Europe where his grandparents had lived and his parents had been born as a kind of black hole of terror – pure, undiluted terror. Every relative and every friend of his relatives who had stayed in Lithuania had perished. “Is it possible to have ‘roots’ in such an abyss? I think not.” Describing the open pit mines near where he grew up in Kimberley, South Africa, Jacobson writes: “That is what the past is like: echoless and bottomless. Only its shallowest levels, those closest to us, have recognizable colours and forms. So we fix our gaze there. Below them is a darkness that gives back nothing.”
Sometime in the 1990s, when he was in his sixties, Jacobson finally went to Lithuania, accompanied by his son. Uncertain of what he will find and deeply afraid that the trip will not lead to understanding, he nevertheless plunges into visits to historical museums, Jewish cemeteries, the villages where his family originated, the sites where Jews were massacred by the Nazis and their local collaborators. At first he is puzzled and disappointed that almost nothing remains of the past he wants to find. But before he realizes it, his skepticism gives way to a vigorous engagement with the past. Small epiphanies draw him further and further into Lithuania’s landscape and its history.
“How shaming it was that I had to visit the country where these things had been done, and go to some of the places where the murdering took place, to feel the horror of it so intently.” Jacobson’s ultimate realization – one obviously shared by Sebald – is that place matters. It makes no difference if a place is emptied of every sign of the past, stripped of every trace of its historical violence – place, in collaboration with the imagination, serves to make the connections necessary to understanding the past.
So this is not a story in which a series of riddles is proposed in order to have them resolved in the last chapter, as in a detective novel. Nor is it one of a mystical reunion beyond the grave. On the other hand, I did learn something about my grandfather I had not expected beforehand; it had not even occurred to me that it might be possible to do so. Looking about me in Lithuania, searching for him in the midst of a devastating absence and emptiness, I was surprised to find myself grasping for the first time the full reality to itself of the obliterated community he had belonged to. Seeing him in the context of his vanished people, of the nation that is now not, I began to understand for the first time how it could once have seemed to him sufficient; as much as he needed; as much as a man like himself could expect to find on God’s unredeemed earth.
It’s easy to see why Sebald was so sympathetic to Jacobson’s modest, almost self-denigrating voice, his willingness to turn minor events (even non-events) into moments of deep meaning, his abiding belief in the power of evidence, and his pessimism. “Evil can never be quantified or aggregated. It can only be inflicted and suffered.” And: “Only the globe’s most uninhabitable wastes remain wholly innocent and undefiled.” These are sentiments that run through Sebald’s writings, as well.
Here’s how Austerlitz ends:
Sitting by the moat of the fortress of Breendonk, I read to the end of the fifteenth chapter of Heshel’s Kingdom, and then set out on my way back to Mechelen, reaching the town as evening began to fall.
April 6, 2007
Between 2002 and about 2005, National Geographic series published a well-intentioned, but decidedly mixed group of travel memoirs called National Geographic Directions. Excellent contemporary writers were commissioned to write about parts of the world they know intimately (perhaps too intimately to write well about, at times). Writers included David Mamet (on his corner of Vermont), Jan Morris (on her house in Wales), Francine Prose (on Sicily), W.S. Merwin (on southwestern France), Robert Hughes (on Barcelona), and Oliver Sacks (on Oaxaca), among others. As far as I can tell, the series stopped after about twenty titles.
Along with Jan Morris’ great contribution, my favorite title in the series is Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country (Washington: National Geographic, 2003). Erdrich, who owns a terrific small bookstore in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books, writes of a driving and canoeing trip into the lake country of northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. Naturally, it’s a multi-layered voyage of discovery – involving a personal relationship, a new daughter, her Ojibwe roots, her love for books, and surprisingly much more – all in about 142 pages. Book collectors will be particularly interested in Erdrich’s description of the house of Ernest Carl Oberholtzer (1884-1977), a preservationist (co-founder of the Wilderness Society and a battler for the Boundary Waters), self-taught expert on the Ojibwe, and an exceptional, if eccentric, book collector. Oberholtzer spent most of his adult life on tiny Mallard Island in Rainy Lake, north of International Falls, MN. The last thing one expects to find in a hand-built house on an obscure island in a remote and unpopulated part of Ontario is a book collection of more than 11,000 volumes, and Erdrich has fun exploring both the island and library during her stay there (the property is now run by a foundation). For more on Oberholtzer and Mallard Island click here.
While reading Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country it was a curious and pleasant surprise to find that one of the books Erdrich packed for her trip was Sebald’s Austerlitz, which she quotes and discusses admiringly on several occasions. (For her travel reading list see page 10 and for her commentary on Sebald see pages 95-97 and 133-135.) Erdrich has her own shock of recognition as she reaches the end of Austerlitz. She discloses that her advisor when she studied at the University of London in the mid-1970s was Dan Jacobson, whose own memoir of the Holocaust – Heshel’s Kingdom (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1998) – is discussed at length in the closing pages of Austerlitz.
Here’s a brief teaser from page 95: “Reading Sebald’s Austerlitz in a cheap motel, insecure, with a chair pushed beneath the doorknob and the drapes held shut with hair clips, is an experience for which I will always be grateful”
When I visited Birchbark Books last summer, signed copies of this and other Erdrich titles were available.